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Gig Review: Beirut @ The Forum, 10th January

Not many bands can calmly walk onto stage and play two of my favourite ever songs within the first ten minutes of the show. But that’s exactly what Zach Condon and his band did a couple of nights ago at The Forum in Melbourne, with a casual nonchalance that contrasted with just how important their music obviously was to many of the adoring people packed into the sold out venue. And the night had only just begun.

The songs in question were Scenic World and Elephant Gun, two songs that I’ve carried with me for many years and always hoped to hear live. Beirut didn’t disappoint, playing renditions very faithful to the two tracks from their magnificent EP ‘Lon Gisland’. Scenic World was probably the best opening song that I have ever witnessed, and when Zach retrieved his ukulele for Elephant Gun everything else just seemed to melt away and all that was left was that masterpiece of a song, guided by the gentle sound of a ukulele and Condon’s sublime, exotic voice. The revered silence that filled the venue spoke volumes of the importance of the occasion and the magic of Beirut’s music. 

Earlier in the night local band Pikelet had done a decent job of warming up the crowd, albeit with music that revealed its formula a little too easily and a little too early. The band took a while to get into full swing, and their true potential was only showcased with their last few songs: more upbeat numbers that finally saw some interesting use of looping. They are a band that have been around for a while, and I have seen them live before, however they still fail to really capture my interest, despite some fairly original elements to their music and rare inspired moments.

Back to Beirut’s set however and the band were just getting started with what would turn out to be a flawless set, both in song selection and execution. Thankfully they resisted the temptation to overplay their newest album, ‘The Rip Tide’, because even though it’s a wonderful record it would be a shame to take too much time away from older classics. Vagabond was a welcome inclusion however, allowing the band’s illustrious horns section to really shine. It was oddly refreshing to witness a gig without a single guitar in sight, not to mention one with a constant piano accordion. Postcards From Italy gave Zach a chance to bring back his ukulele, and was clearly a huge hit with the crowd.

East Harlem, the first single from ‘The Rip Tide’. made an appearance, but it was oddly overshadowed by the older tracks bookmarking it, A Sunday Smile and Nantes, both of which got a bit of a sing along going in the crowd and brought back fantastic memories I have of listening to these two tracks in particular on repeat many summers ago. The euphoric climaxes of brass and horns that seemed to feature in virtually every song were nothing short of breath-taking; quite unlike anything else I have ever heard live before. In it’s own way, this is music just as powerful as anything else around.

The set changed pace slightly with Goshen, a restrained number and my personal favourite song off ‘The Rip Tide’. The stage lights dimmed, leaving only one to brightly illuminate Zach Condon as he sat behind a piano, playing the song quietly and gracefully as a solo performance before the rest of the band joined him for its conclusion. I was sure that After The Curtain would close the main set, however the band surprised by pulling out one more number after its conclusion, and non other than the gorgeous Santa Fe, an ode to Condon’s home town that allowed him to showcase the full range of his incredibly nuanced voice.

After a surprisingly protracted encore break Zach Condon returned to rapturous applause, uke in hand once again to play the beautiful The Penalty without the help of the rest of the band. The others were back into action soon however, most notably for My Night With The Prostitute From Marseille, which in my opinion is the only really worthwhile track from Beirut’s double EP ‘Holland/March Of The Zapotec’. The song was changed up ever so slightly live, but it was nevertheless incredible, and really did spearhead the encore.

Throughout the night Zach had been pretty quiet in terms of banter, but really the elegance of his music demanded nothing less (although his relative silence may have been due to his belief that no-one in the crowd could understand what he was saying when he did speak). However he left the crowd in no doubt whatsoever that the band were hugely appreciative to be playing in front of a sold out crowd and were genuinely enjoying their time in Melbourne. He also left us with an important life lesson: don’t shave drunk.

The night finished with something of a brass cacophony, as Gulag Orkestar led into a mostly instrumental cover of (what I believe to be) Siki Siki Baba which saw band members take in turns playing solos on their chosen instruments. It was a euphoric moment, as something of a gypsy dance broke out in the middle of the crowd and everyone lost themselves in the joy of the music.

It had been a night to savour; a night to mercifully think about nothing else except the sheer beauty of the music that you were witnessing. A night to cross one of my favourite bands ever off my bucket list of bands to see live, only to add them back on, coupled with the word ‘again’ in brackets. It was a gig of such sublime music that it felt utterly unique and separate from anything and everything else. I’ll be holding onto the memories for a long time to come, and it’s hard to see much else this year even coming close.

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